SMH: Opinion – Nationals against drug reform are out of step with rural communities

Stephen Lawrence is the Country Labor deputy mayor of Dubbo Regional Council.

Recent statements to the Sydney media by National Party MPs opposing a policy for modest drug law reform are political posturing and do not reflect community sentiment in their own electorates.

I have spent the best part of the last 10 years helping lead a popular push in a regional community for a new approach to illicit drug use. We have secured state funding for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre and are hoping for an imminent commitment for a Drug Court to work alongside it.

It is telling indeed that Dugald Saunders MP, member for Dubbo and my local member, has to date not made his anti-reform statements in our local media.

The truth is Saunders knows strident law and order rhetoric on drug users goes down like a lead balloon in Dubbo these days, even among the most passionate advocates of tough on crime approaches.Advertisement

Under the proposal drug users found in possession of small quantities of illicit drugs will get three chances. First a warning, second a fine, third a larger fine. Only on a fourth occasion will they be charged and prosecuted. On a second and third strike fines can be avoided by attending drug treatment. It is sensible policy and opposition to it by responsible leaders almost unfathomable.

Our current approach is destroying young lives and burdening regional communities with entrenched high rates of crime and family breakdown.

Country people see up close and personal the impact of illicit drug use and crime in ways many city people do not. It doesn’t matter where you live in towns like Dubbo or further afield in places like Walgett, Bourke and Broken Hill. No one is immune and everyone knows a family ripped apart by drug use.

This is not to paint an overly dark picture. In many ways our communities are thriving with low unemployment rates and a quality of life to be envied. But we do struggle with entrenched problems of illicit drug use and social dysfunction that drug treatment and law reform are absolutely key to addressing.

The ice epidemic peaked some time ago, yet we still wait for a final government response to the inquiry set up in 2018 to advise government on a policy response. It will be 2021 before even the beginning of the implementation. The inquiry report is sobering reading. The case it makes for resourcing and reform is unassailable.

There is no doubt country communities like Dubbo have been let down by government. It was galling indeed to hear these National Party MP’s invoking the ice epidemic as a misguided rationale for their opposition to reform.
Anyone of influence who engages publically in this space needs to weigh their words and actions very carefully. It is incumbent upon them to do their research.

That these same MPs represent electorates struggling with the curse of Aboriginal over-representation in our courts and jails makes their political opportunism all the more appalling.

I have sat recently with families grieving loved ones, but also with recovered addicts now a picture of health. In the part of Dubbo I represent as a councillor, far too many Aboriginal people still enter our jails and juvenile facilities. These people should be at the forefront of our minds in deliberating on reform.

There is a profound moral dimension to these issues. Our communities are united on the need for reform and we stand on the precipice of it. It would be a tragedy if it was scuttled on the back of ambition and an internecine political war within the Coalition.

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